By Justin Reedy
More than a year before voters go to the polls to decide the Clayton County Sheriff's race, the political fur has already started flying between the incumbent and his, so far, sole challenger.
Sheriff Stanley Tuggle is seeking his third term as the county's top law enforcement official and is facing opposition from Victor Hill, a 10-year veteran of the Clayton County Police Department who also serves in the Georgia House of Representatives as a Democrat.
Tuggle says that his experience in the Clayton County Sheriff's Department is his strong suit in this political race. He has lived in Clayton County for more than 40 years, and, having started as a jailer and worked his way through the ranks, has 30 years of continuous service in the department.
"Nobody knows this sheriff's office better than I do," Tuggle said.
The sheriff's department has made significant advances during his tenure, Tuggle said, including changing the ethnic makeup of the personnel and command staff to reflect Clayton County's diverse population. The department has also started or expanded several community outreach programs targeting students, young drivers and other groups.
"We've been out front in a lot of areas," Tuggle said. "We've had a good two terms."
Hill entered the political world in 2001 when he was elected as a state representative for District 81. But the police detective and legislator decided to try and make the jump to sheriff because he feels he can do better than Tuggle has during his two terms.
Statistics have shown that crime has increased during Tuggle's administration, Hill says, and he thinks he can better address that. Hill also criticized Tuggle for going over his budget by about $2.7 million over the last two years because of overtime pay to sheriff's department employees.
"Under the current administration, crime has gone up and taxpayer money has been wasted," Hill said. "I can do a dynamic job of addressing both issues."
Though the primary responsibility of the sheriff in Clayton County is to run the jail ? the county has a separate police department ? Hill says Tuggle must still be held responsible for increasing crime in Clayton County.
"Constitutionally that doesn't diminish the police powers of the sheriff," Hill said. "It's important in a county like ours that the sheriff and the police chief work shoulder-to-shoulder and elbow-to-elbow to address crime issues."
But Tuggle says that he understands the workings of the county police department, having worked there for a year early in his law enforcement career. Tuggle also found it strange that Hill would blame him for increased crime, considering the police department's mission.
"It's interesting that he would bring that up when he's a Clayton County police officer, and it's their primary responsibility to answer 911 calls and patrol," Tuggle said.
Hill was also critical of Tuggle for going over his department's budget the last two years because of overtime spending, most of which was at the county jail.
"As an elected official, you do not have an open checkbook with taxpayers' money," Hill said. "Just like you have to work with the money you earn at your job to live your lifestyle, an elected official has to use the money budgeted to accomplish what they need to do."
But Tuggle maintains that the county Board of Commissioners haven't given him enough correctional officers to operate the jail, requiring him to work his staff longer hours.
"I make no apologies for that, other than to say I try and do the best I can with what they give me," Tuggle said.
After commissioners asked Tuggle to reign in spending earlier this year, he cut services in the jail and the Harold R. Banke Justice Center to minimize overtime payments.
Hill and Tuggle, who are both Democrats, are the only two candidates for sheriff so far, but official candidate qualifying isn't until next April. Party primaries will be held July 20, 2004, with the general election scheduled for Nov. 2, 2004.